The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 resulted in the displacement of 160,000 people. As with Chernobyl in 1986, the world was shocked by the immense dangers of nuclear energy gone awry. None more so than Germany, where Angela Merkel quickly pledged to shutter all the country’s nuclear plants by the end of 2022, citing the “helplessness” of the Japanese people in the face of such disaster. A decade on, however, the issue has driven a wedge between the parties of Germany’s current coalition government, as they debate whether to U-turn on Merkel’s pledge and extend the operating lives of the country’s three remaining nuclear plants.

In truth, the country is just a poster child for a problem many countries are now grappling with. In the light of the ongoing energy crisis, much of the Western world is now discussing whether to extend the planned 40-year lifespans of their nuclear stock to cover for the loss of Russian fossil fuels this winter – but there are various practical considerations that, for some countries, may make the juice not worth the squeeze.

Grohnde nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony, Germany. (Photo by Westend61 via Getty Images)

A global debate

In late March, the Belgium government announced it would extend the lifespans of its two nuclear plants, Doel 4 and Tihange 3, by ten years to 2035, after the Ukraine war forced the coalition to reconsider its plans to replace its nuclear capacity with natural gas.

In the UK, the government has been heavily criticised for its reported failure to ask EDF to extend the operating life of the Hinkley Point B nuclear power station beyond its June closure date. Focus has now switched to the Sizewell B plant in Suffolk, whose lifespan EDF has said could be extended by 20 years to 2055 at a cost of between £500m and £700m.

In the US, California lawmakers just last week circulated draft legislation that would keep the state’s last operating nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, open beyond its planned 2025 closure date.

The Biden administration also announced in April it would put $6bn toward saving distressed nuclear plants, which are seen as an important facet of the government’s net-zero strategy, from closure.

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In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz admitted earlier in August that keeping the country’s three remaining plants open beyond the end of the year “could make sense”. The Free Democrats, the smallest party in the coalition, have argued for a rethink of the country’s nuclear plans in response to the energy crisis. The idea is awkward for Scholz’s Social Democrats and the third coalition party, the environmentalist Greens: a Social Democrat-Green government launched the nuclear shutdown two decades ago, and opposition to nuclear power is a key part of the Greens’ identity.

Much depends on the result of a new ‘stress test’ on the security of the country’s electricity supply, due at the beginning of September. For its part, around 60% of the German population is now in favour of extending the leases of the plants, according to an Allensbach poll for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published last week.

Multiplying effects

More than two-thirds of the world’s 442 nuclear power reactors are more than 30 years old and are approaching – if they have not already surpassed – the end of their 40-year lifespan, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although the plants themselves do not have a set-in-stone lifespan, their components do. Most of those components can be safely replaced, theoretically allowing the plants to stay open for as much as 40 more years. Around 100 reactors have already had their licences extended, with nuclear power accounting for around 10% of global electricity production in 2020 and a third of the world’s low-carbon electricity.

Furthermore, according to the IAEA’s Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2020 report, extending the global nuclear fleet’s lifetime by ten years would have a multiplying effect, adding 26,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of low-carbon electricity generation – more than half the electricity produced in the previous 40 years by nuclear power. Extending the fleet’s lifetime by a second decade to 60 years would generate an additional 31,400TWh of electricity – representing almost 2% of the world’s low-carbon electricity produced between 2020 and 2080, using the average of the four illustrative model pathways in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. A lifetime extension to 80 years total would more than double those figures, states the IAEA.

The levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) – the measure used to compare electricity generation costs – of the long-term operation of a nuclear power plant (involving the refurbishment costs for light water reactors and a lifetime extension of 20 years) would be around $3040 per megawatt-hour, says the IAEA. This would be comparable to the LCOE of new wind and solar photovoltaic plants.

“If you have got a nuclear power station that is up and running safely and you can extend its life affordably, then it is a sensible thing to do,” says Tom Burke, chair and founding director of environmental think tank E3G.

Safety, affordability, reliability

However, there are many justifiable reasons why extending the lifespan of a nuclear plant may prove impractical; and that will depend on the nuances of each country’s situation, Burke caveats.

“Scholtz’s argument about whether Germany would extend its existing nuclear power stations was about whether it would be affordable, not whether it would be doable," he says. "It is a different issue in the UK because there is an issue about whether you can do it safely with the advanced gas-cooled reactors, because they’ve found cracking in the graphite blocks.”

Security is also a growing concern at UK nuclear plants. The number of formal reports documenting security issues at the UK’s civil nuclear facilities has hit its highest level in at least 12 years, the Guardian revealed in May. A total of 456 incident notification forms documenting security issues at UK nuclear facilities were submitted to the Office for Nuclear Regulation in 2021 – 30% more than the 320 reports filed in 2020 and more than double the 213 reports from 2018.

In the US, the issue is more of an economic argument, as it has become increasingly difficult for nuclear power to compete with gas in the marketplace, states Burke. “We will see what happens in America, but it makes perfect sense to extend the life of existing nuclear power in the short term, provided you don't run risks on safety, and that will again vary from place to place,” he says. “If you are thinking about some reactors in America, like Diablo Canyon (which is located near several fault lines), you're thinking about whether the risk is a seismic event. In other places, you are just thinking about whether you can do enough engineering to continue to run them safely. Their nuclear plants are also old and they are going to be expensive – as the French are finding out.”

On 29 April, around half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors – which generate 70% of the country’s electricity – had to be shut down due to routine maintenance or defects, forcing EDF to buy electricity from the European grid at a time of soaring demand.

The German basket case

Germany perhaps faces the most difficult trade-offs and impracticalities when it comes to prolonging its nuclear power plants. The country’s most pressing issue is finding a stand-in for its heavy reliance on Russian gas before the winter. However, gas in Germany is largely used for heating in private or industrial processes, where additional nuclear-powered electricity would be of little help. “You would have to produce the heat another way – and that wouldn’t come from nuclear,” says Christoph Pistner, head of nuclear engineering and facility safety at environmental research institute Oeko-Institut.

The other use of gas in the German electricity system is to cover the fluctuations in demand and production of renewable energy. “Gas power in Germany quickly jumps between a few gigawatts (GW) and 10/12/13GW just to bridge the gap in the demand and production of renewables, and you cannot do that with nuclear power plants," says Pistner. “Therefore, prolonging the lifespans of nuclear power plants wouldn’t help very much to save gas usage in the electricity system.”

Another roadblock comes in the form of the country’s 'Atomic Law', which lays out reasons why the nuclear power plants should not operate after 2022. If the law was to be changed, it would open the government to lawsuits from third parties, according to Pistner.

There are also practical considerations. There is limited fuel left in the country’s nuclear reactors, enough to operate them for another two to three months. To use them for any longer, the operators would have to buy new fuel. “It would take probably over a year to get some new fuels, probably meaning the nuclear plants wouldn’t be able to be used next summer, and depending on when the decision is taken, the new fuel may only be available by the end of next year,” says Pistner.

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Then there are the personnel issues. All the reactor operators have long planned for closing at the end of this year, so their staff are all moving on to other jobs. “We would need to change all our operational procedures to get these people back; to qualify them, to renew their licence – just to be able to continue to operate these power plants,” says Pistner.

Finally, there would be the safety issues. Beyond the open question of whether having nuclear plants operating at all is safe in the first place, there is a specific obligation in international requirements for operators to perform periodic safety reviews every ten years. However, there is a clause in those requirements stating that when the plant is closing within three years, the operator forgoes the review. “The three German plants that are still in operation would have had to have done this review in 2019, but they didn't do it because they thought they would be closing at the end of 2022,” says Pistner. “So there is a big question mark over whether these plants are still safe to run.”

Over the longer term, there are many who argue Germany would be better served by concentrating on replacing its nuclear capacity with renewable energy. Within the German electricity sector, nuclear reactors contributed just 69TWh to the grid in 2021, whereas renewable sources of energy provided 238TWh. To put that into historical perspective, in 2010, the year before Fukushima, nuclear energy contributed 140.6TWh and renewables 105.2TWh.

“The increase in the contribution of renewables has more than compensated for the decline in nuclear energy generation,” says MV Ramana, the Simons chair in disarmament, global and human security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. What is more, when combined with an increase in energy efficiency, resulting in decreasing energy consumption, Germany also reduced its use of coal and lignite, whereas natural gas contributed roughly the same amount of electricity in 2010 as it did in 2021.

“The bottom line is this: expanding renewables can more than make up for the loss of nuclear capacity," says Ramana. "It is true that for various political reasons that expansion has not gone as fast as it should have in the last few years, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed that situation.”